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NHL to wait for Canada world junior sexual assault case to finish before next steps

The NHL launched its own investigation in 2022 and pledged to release the findings
FILE - Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltender Carter Hart in action during an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton, File)

The NHL will wait for the judicial process to play out before making any decisions about four players facing sexual assault charges in a 2018 case involving Canada’s world junior team that year, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday (Feb. 2).

Addressing the situation at All-Star Weekend days after the NHL players were charged by police in London, Ont., with sexual assault, Bettman called the allegations “abhorrent, reprehensible, horrific and unacceptable.”

Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers, Michael McLeod and Cal Foote of the New Jersey Devils, and Dillon Dube of the Calgary Flames are all on indefinite leave from their teams. Bettman said the league does not consider it necessary to suspend the players without pay for the rest of the season.

“At this stage, the most responsible and prudent thing for us to do is await the conclusion of the judicial proceedings, at which point we will respond as appropriate at the time,” Bettman said. “The fact that they’re away from their teams and not playing I’m comfortable with. They’ve been paid the vast bulk of their salary for the year anyway. We’re coming down to the stretch run of when compensation is paid to players. That’s not the concern. The concern is to get this right.”

Bettman pointed out that all four do not have contracts beyond this season, and it appears unlikely any of the teams involved would attempt to terminate a deal before then.

“It becomes irrelevant in terms of the timing,” Bettman said. “They’re all away from their teams on leave, and (then) they’re all free agents. They won’t be under contract after this season anyway. In order to terminate a contract successfully, you need to be able to prove certain things.”

Former NHL player Alex Formenton has also been charged. Attorneys for all five players have said their clients are innocent. London Police have scheduled a Monday news conference to provide an update on the case.

READ MORE: World junior hockey sex assault case in court Monday

Because of a legal backlog in Canada, it is unclear when any court proceedings might begin, let alone wrap up. Asked about the eligibility of Hart, McLeod, Foote and Dube in the meantime, Bettman said he “would be surprised if they’re playing while this is pending.”

“If I were them, I would be focusing on defending themselves, assuming the charges come down,” Bettman said.

Bettman has wide latitude to make decisions in the interest of the game. The league in 2019 suspended Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov for the 2019-20 season and ensuing playoffs after determining he committed acts of domestic violence. Shane Pinto was suspended for 41 games for violating the league’s gambling policy.

The NHL launched its own investigation in 2022 and pledged to release the findings. Bettman said that investigation took roughly 12 months, finishing up last summer. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly added that nothing will be released while the case is ongoing.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Marty Walsh was tight-lipped about his and the union’s role in the situation.

“I think you have to wait and see what happens in the courts and how the court proceedings go,” he said. “And then after that, you have a conversation about what the next steps are. But I think you can’t go that far down the road right now.”

A woman sued Hockey Canada in 2022, alleging she was sexually assaulted in a hotel room by eight members of Canada’s world junior team after a fundraising gala in London in 2018. Hockey Canada settled the lawsuit, and then an investigation revealed the organization had two secret slush funds to pay out settlements on claims of sexual assault and abuse.

Bettman said the league found out about the allegations on May 26, 2022. He said the NHL interviewed every player from that team, adding the woman involved declined to take part in the investigation.

“There’s no fault there,” Bettman said. “She was absolutely within her rights not to talk to us, and we respect that, but that impacts also how the investigation had complexity to it.”

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press